Shootin' the breeze with Jes Reyes

I miss the days of artist blogs. Probably because of social media, they’ve become a digital endangered species. This is one of the reasons that I really appreciate what Jes Reyes has done with her Artists I Admire series. She’s turned her website into a really active platform for letting artists (like myself) sound off on their practice, the local challenges they face, and what makes them tick. I was lucky enough to be featured a while back, so take a look.

"The Great American Think Off" Premiere!

It's finally happening! My film, "The Great American Think Off", is showing on Pioneer Public TV!

A made-for-TV version will be broadcast as part of Postcards, Pioneer's premiere locally-produced program featuring the art, history and cultural heritage of western Minnesota. The full film (all 55 minutes!) will be broadcast later in May.

I've always wanted to tell stories that reflect the real people and enlarge the common lives of my home state, so I couldn't think of a better venue for the film's debut. Postcards is at the forefront of documenting the cultural richness of this region, and it's really an honor to have this film included in their lineup this season.

It takes a community to make a film like this. None of this couldn't have happened without the help of Tricia Towey, Christer Bechtell, Carson Davis Brown, Mary Welcome, Bethany Lacktorin, Jais Gossman, Caleb Davis Wood, Kyle Ollah, Anna Simonton, Betsy Buerkle Roder, Ashley Hanson, Chris Schuelke, Patrick Moore, the production and scheduling team at Pioneer Public Television, and, of course, my parents Kent Nerburn and Louise Mengelkoch, as well as all the citizen philosophers who let me into their lives, and the great team at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center who pulls off such an ambitious event every year. And a huge thanks to the Jerome Foundation and the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council for helping make it happen! Thank you all, so much.

TIMES: See it on Postcards this Thursday, April 11 at 7 p.m. That episode will be rebroadcast on Sunday, April 14 at 7:30 p.m. and on Monday, April 15 at 1:30 p.m. Then, the full film will be broadcast on Friday, May 31, 2019 at 11:30 a.m.

If you're not in Pioneer's broadcast region, you can see it streaming at those same times on Pioneer's website (

Say it with me: fair use!

All archival footage is being used as outlined in US Copyright law under 17 USC § 107 - Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use. "Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright."

The Great American Think Off

Big story from Nik’s News today - I’m honored to be a recipient of a 2018 Jerome Foundation Grant, which will fund the production of a documentary film about the Great American Think-Off, a rural philosophy debate that happens every year in New York Mills, Minnesota (population 1,199).

Four people from around the country compete to come to this central Minnesota town to debate questions like “Does Life Have Meaning?”, “Does Technology Free Us or Trap Us?", and "Has the 2016 election changed our perception of the truth?". The New York Mills Cultural Center (also known as the “Kulcher Center”), which hosts the debate, encourages writers "to ground their essays in personal experience rather than philosophical abstraction. "Four “thinkers” who have submitted essays on the agreed-upon philosophical question are brought to New York Mills, where they are invited to make their arguments before the town, who chooses a “Great American Thinker” by vote in their elementary school’s gym.

I applied like I do to many grants and residencies; by applying and then promptly forgetting about it, hardening myself to likely rejection and preparing to steamroll on ahead. So you can imagine what it was like when I got the phone call from the Jerome Foundation last week. I thought it must be a mistake!

I empathize with my colleagues and collaborators who might have applied for the same grant and whose projects weren’t accepted. The application pool seems to have been quite big (and likely strong!) and there are probably lots of factors that influence how the committee chooses. I get many more rejected than accepted applications, but that process helps me hone my application-writing skills to a fine, dagger-like point. This time, the persistence paid off. I’m both humbled and ecstatic to have been chosen! For now, here’s a little bit of my application narrative.

“An accessible open call like this attracts strong thinkers from all walks of life. Previous “Thinkers” include a 16-year old Eagle Scout, a doctoral candidate specializing in biomedical ethics, a retired assembly-line worker, a man incarcerated for murder whose essay was read aloud on stage in his absence, a staff writer of the Baltimore Sun, a World War II veteran, and my childhood dentist (he won twice). The “Great American Thinker” is never crowned as such for having the ‘right’ argument, but only for having the best-argued stance. “Honestly,” as the founder of the Kulcher Center said in 2012, “I think this idea of, 'I'm not changing my opinion, but really, the best argument tonight was made by this person,' is a pretty neat thing to do, isn't it?”

I’ve wanted to make a film about the Think-Off ever since I heard about it two years ago while working as a resident artist at the New York Mills Cultural Center. While there, I learned that New York Mills has a unique history of debate and dissent, being shaped by the many Finnish immigrants living there, who were often marginalized because of their socialist heritage. The 2017 Think-Off will no doubt feature strong characters, whom the film will follow from their arrival in New York Mills to their arguments on-stage, culminating in the winner’s announcement.

Since the 2016 election, rural communities have been psychoanalyzed ad-nauseum in the national media; they are mired in patronizing representations and surface assumptions of conservatism. As somebody with deep and continuing roots in rural Minnesota, I'm interested in depictions of rural life that contradict urban assumptions. In our fraught national political climate, these assumptions need to be challenged more than ever. At its core, this project is about complicating the dominant representation of rural people, by documenting a thoughtful and ideas-based debate happening in the deep north woods. I believe that now is the right time for a project like this.”

More to come soon!

West Duluth

I'll be living in Duluth, Minnesota for three months this summer working on a collaborative image-making project for the Duluth Art Institute. Lincoln Park is another neighborhood on the edge of transformation, with new businesses moving in at a moderate pace and the older, working-class neighborhood shifting with it. Culturally, the neighborhood reminds me of Superior, Wisconsin - a hard-drinking, hard-working, practical place with a deep industrial identity (even as that industry, primarily Taconite shipping and processing, is also changing rapidly).  As usual, my interest is in the history of the landscape and the ways people make sense of their place in it.

My work will be in the mold of my East Macon polaroid project, driven by a street-based collaborative image-making process. In other words, free pictures! I'm planning a storefront show on West Superior street as a culmination in September. Stay tuned! I'll be actively posting on facebook, instagram and on the project's site (

My studio in Lincoln Park. Thanks to the great folks at the Duluth Art Institute!

My studio in Lincoln Park. Thanks to the great folks at the Duluth Art Institute!

13 Roads in Otter Tail County screenings

Hey all! I have some really exciting Minnesota screenings coming up this spring and summer. For starters, my film 13 Roads in Otter Tail County will screen at the 2017 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival this April 27th. This is soon, I know - so if you can't see it then, don't despair, because you can still catch it on the good-old-fashioned television. Twin Cities Public Television is showing the film as part of it's MNTV showcase on Sunday May 14th at 10:30 PM on TPT2 & Monday May 15th at 4:30 PM on TPT2. Next, it's showing at the Altered Esthetics Experimental Film Festival this June 1-3, which, by its past curation, looks like it's going to be a remarkable event (coincidentally falling on my birthday, June 2nd). Finally, the film will screen at the Walker Art Center this August 3rd as part of MNTV's museum run! This is a big life for such a little film, and I'm really happy about the love it's receiving. And finally, these rural roads will also be seen in the big city of San Francisco as part of Other Cinema's Psychogeography show on May 6th. Huzzah!

The Minnesota Third State Hospital for the Insane

I'm thrilled to announce that I've been accepted as a resident artist by Hinge Arts in Fergus Falls, Minnesota! This means that I'll be spending the spring on the humble plains of west central Minnesota, living in the old Fergus Falls State Hospital, also known as the Third Minnesota State Hospital for the Insane, working on an experimental/expanded documentary film project. I can't wait to find out what stories and memories are waiting to be dusted off inside this awe-inspiring, haunting and melancholy place.

More updates to come!